I denounce humanity by Frigyes Karinthy

Je dénonce l’humanité (1912-1929) by Frigyes Karinthy. Not available in English.

Because we only run left and right in this tormented world. We hop high and low without thinking of the particular path our soul is taking in an invisible world…

Karinthy_humanitéJe dénonce l’humanité is a collection of very short stories (2-3 pages each) written by Frigyes Karinthy between 1912 and 1934. There are 39 stories gathered in this volume. Fifteen were written before the Great War, four during the war and the rest in the 1920s. These delightful texts are full of fun and of every brand of humour possible: comedy, irony, absurd, self-deprecating humour, black humour. Karinthy plays with paradoxes, points out inconsistencies. He made me laugh-out-loud, chuckle under my breath in trains, attracting intrigued looks from fellow passengers.

The stories cover domestic situations, they mock the Hungarian society and talk about the Great War through circuitous paths.

I loved the one about a boy struggling with his homework. He’s in front of a math problem and his father stops to help him. He wants to show off how clever he is and he starts reading the wording. He realises he’s clueless but he doesn’t want to lose face. So he turns the tables on his son, accusing him of being distracted and not enough into his work. He forges his own reasons to yell and leave his son to his own devices. As soon as he’s done, it dawns on him that his father did exactly the same when he was a little boy and he understands his father was also clueless…

There’s another fantastic one about a man engaging conversation with a stranger in a café. He makes a heartfelt speech on the importance of being discreet. He gives as an example his affair with a married woman. The more he tries to hammer his point, the more he discloses private information about the woman until he lets her name slip. Then the other man reveals his name and…he’s this woman’s husband!

Black humour seeps through one story written during the war. Two men chat in a café –there are a lot of cafés in Budapest—about the use of gas in the trenches. After a few paragraphs, we understand that the man talking is not worried about the use of gas on the soldiers but he’s worried about his business. Indeed, he makes a living out of exterminating bugs and all this mustard gas kills bugs, who, poor things, don’t wear a mask. It destroys the bugs and jeopardises the future of his business.

The stories are also a mirror of their time, like in At the Neurologist’s where Karinthy makes fun of the enthusiasm for Freud’s theories.

I gazed pensively and said:

– I like yellow broad bean soup.

My friend, who’s been practicing Freud’s psychoanalysis lately looked at me sharply.

– Why do you say that you like yellow broad bean soup?

– Because I like it, I said truthfully

– Didn’t you date a blue-haired woman when you were six?

– I don’t remember. Why?

– Because blue and yellow are complementary colours. One never says anything without a reason: it’s one of psychoanalysis’s accepted facts. Every assertion is either unintentional repressed sadism or repressed masochism. Everything stems from something sexual and can be reduced to childhood memories. You dated a blue-haired woman, therefore you like yellow broad bean soup.

The stories also reflect the history of Hungary. In some tales, people pay in koronas, in others in pengoes. The currency of Hungary was koronas until 1927. Then it was replaced by pengoes until it was changed for the forint in 1946. Three different banknotes and coins in fifty years. And by the way, there’s a fantastic story based on currency. It dates back to 1917 and it’s actually a letter written by a critic to the Hungarian central bank in Budapest. The critic requests a sample of the new 1000 koronas banknote for the sole purpose of writing a review about its artistic form. Of course, getting a “review copy” of a 1000 koronas banknote wouldn’t hurt his wallet…

As you’ve guessed by now, Karinthy is extremely funny, witty and literate. There’s a change in tone between the stories written before the war and the ones written after. His natural confidence in progress and humanity was swiped away by the butchery of the war and its devastating aftermath. Industrialised killings made their toll on his morale. Karinthy saw himself as an heir of the Encyclopaedists. He had faith in Reason and science. His experience with war sounds like a wakeup call and I can’t help thinking about Candide. The Great War rattled his faith in men. Karinthy died in 1938, so he never witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust. I bet this would have shattered his faith in humanity for good.

I loved this book and I’m extremely sorry to report that these stories are not available in English. We French readers owe the delight to read them to the publisher Viviane Hamy. They also publish Dezső Kosztolányi and I’m pleased that Frigyes Karinthy is reunited with his dear friend Dezső on the shelves of their French publisher.

For French readers, I’ll say that Viviane Hamy advertises that book with a jacket which asks “What if Desproges was Hungarian?” It’s true, you can imagine Desproges telling Karinthy’s books on stage. The acerbic tone, the absurdity of life, the peskiness of people and the black humour would have suited him.

PS : For non-French readers, Pierre Desproges was a comedian who used to do one-man shows. He had a nasty but oh-so-funny brand of humour. He was ruthless when it came to denounce the stupidity of the human species. He denounced humanity too.

  1. March 18, 2015 at 9:31 am

    And here you are with another Hungarian author whose name I never heard! Well, I’m not actually a huge fan of short fiction although I’ve been active in the genre quite a bit myself. Besides, he hasn’t been widely translated into German if I can trust wikipedia. The German article offers only few German titles (along with the entire bibliography in Hungarian!), most of them published in Eastern Germany in the 1970s and 1980s.

    Thanks for another literary excavation from a country whose authors don’t seem to be very familiar to English- (and German-)speaking readers… with the exception of a few like Sándor Márai or Imre Kertész.

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    • March 18, 2015 at 10:30 pm

      I’m going to explore Hungarian literature further. The problem is the books that are translated into French are not necessarily available in English and German.

      I feel especially guilty when I write a billet about a book such as Je dénonce l’humanité only to say to English-speaking readers “Sorry guys, unless you can read it in French, this one is not accessible to you”. It’s like going to someone with a mouth-watering chocolate cake and take it away.

      I write the billets anyway for French readers and foreigners who can read in French.

      Like

      • March 19, 2015 at 1:08 am

        I’m glad to hear you say this about books unavailable in English. I decided when I started blogging that I’d write about such books anyway. I’ve heard enough translators say that the only way to generate interest from publishers in getting books translated is, well, to generate interest in getting books translated. And besides, there’s such an infinity of works one will never be able to read that it’s good at least to have an opportunity to learn something about them even if one can’t get around to reading them (or – even more importantly – can’t access them at all).

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        • March 19, 2015 at 5:34 pm

          Hear, hear! I enjoy reading about these books even if they aren’t available in English at the present time. And who knows, one or two of them might get picked up by an enterprising publisher.

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          • March 19, 2015 at 10:41 pm

            Thanks, that’s good to know.

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        • March 19, 2015 at 10:43 pm

          If one of the books listed in the freshly created “Translation Tragedy” category makes it into English (or into French when it’s an book written in English) thanks to this little blog, I’ll be happy.

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      • March 19, 2015 at 9:39 am

        Yes, it’s sometimes frustrating to find that a book you enjoyed very much hasn’t been translated into English… I decided to review on my blog only books available in English, but usually I try to find another work by the same author or something similar for review and in my introduction (sometimes later in the text) I almost always refer to the untranslated book as a hint for publishers and translators.

        In addition, I have my four-weekly Authors’ Portraits which over time have changed into promotion for little known authors in the public domain whose work often can’t be found in translation or not even in digitized form. Yesterday, I published my portrait of the Norwegian writer Amalie Skram. Well, she has been rediscovered in the 1960s and translated into English ever since the 1990s (it seems) – not her chief work, though…

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  2. March 18, 2015 at 9:56 am

    It’s a pity this collection isn’t available in English as the stories sound very sharp. We’ll have to hope a translation appears at some stage. Hungarian literature is a bit of a gap for me, but I’ve enjoyed the ones I’ve read so far (loved Kosztolanyi’s Skylark).

    Like

    • March 18, 2015 at 10:34 pm

      I know, it’s a real pity it’s not translated into English. Ian said on Twitter it’s a “translation tragedy”. I’m going to create a category like this.

      Skylark is a marvelous book. I’ve read two others by Kosztolanyi and they were excellent as well.

      Like

      • March 19, 2015 at 1:11 am

        “Translation tragedy” – I like it. I have a list like this on my computer. It’s been great to see a few of the works on it appear in English recently.

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      • March 19, 2015 at 5:35 pm

        Great category. I must try another Kosztolanyi – I have Anna Edes, which I think you reviewed a while back.

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        • March 19, 2015 at 10:40 pm

          Anna Edes is great.
          The category “Translation Tragedy” is created. And it includes The Golden Kite, the other Kosztolanyi I’ve read.

          Like

  3. March 18, 2015 at 4:27 pm

    Hooray! I’m glad to see that some of Karinthy’s stories are available in French. Readers of English are likely to know him only by A Journey ‘Round My Skull, the first description of brain surgery from the patient’s point of view – a terrific if harrowing book. However, there is at least one out of print collection of stories in English, because I read (and loved) it. It’s entitled Grave and Gay, an apt description of the work of this writer who can be both, simultaneously. A lot of the stories in there stick with me, including one about a man who mistakenly assumes that an asylum lunatic is his psychiatrist, and a marvelous story – with a particularly beautiful ending – about Columbus and alchemist, sailing off in separate groups of ships, to prove their opposing convictions concerning the flatness of the earth.

    I’ll have to pick up this French collection, as most of the stories you mention don’t sound familiar. But why should they? Karinthy was apparently incredibly prolific. One wonders what others among his many hundreds of works might be treasures waiting to be untranslated.

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    • March 18, 2015 at 10:43 pm

      There’s a review of A Journey ‘Round My Skull here. I’m tempted, really. This one is available in English.
      Thanks for giving references of books in English. Used copies of Grave and Gay exist.

      Karinthy wrote tons of stories. Only a small sample were included in that collection. I hope they will translate more of them. This is the kind of book I’d want to buy for friends. There are several books by him available in French and all sound fantastic. Have a look here.

      Like

      • March 19, 2015 at 1:15 am

        Wow, that’s great, thanks for that link. And yes, A Journey ‘Round My Skull is really worth reading.

        Like

  4. March 18, 2015 at 10:13 pm

    I, too, denounce humanity!

    Oh, that is just the title of a book. Never mind. The book does sounds good.

    Like

    • March 18, 2015 at 10:59 pm

      It is a great book.
      Je dénonce l’humanité is a short story in this collection. It’s a monologue that starts with the censorship of “shimmy dance” and spirals out of control and ends up denouncing humanity. It’s hilarious
      He says :

      J’invite l’Ordre moral à mieux avoir à l’œil le genre humain. Par là même je dénonce le genre humain maintenant qu’enfin, grâce au shimmy, l’Ordre moral s’est rendu compte par lui-même ce qui se passe ici; voyez-vous je dénonce le genre humain: en matière de fantasmes impudiques, de fantasmes libertins, depuis longtemps, et déjà bien avant le shimmy, et dans d’autres domaines auxquels l’Ordre n’a même pas songé, le genre humain s’est rendu coupable, et il l’est encore, des pires abus -en catimini, naturellement, pour qu’on ne s’aperçoive de rien. C’est tout de même inouï…

      I invite the Moral Order to keep a closer look at the human species. Therefore I denounce the human species, now that, thanks to the shimmy dance, the Moral Order eventually caught up with what’s happening here. See, I denounce the human species: in terms of immodest fantasies, of libertine fantasies and for a long time now, and a long time before the shimmy dance and in other areas the Order hasn’t even thought of, the human species has been guilty, and still is, of the worst excesses. They were done on the sly, of course, so that nobody paid attention. It’s incredible…

      Sorry for the clumsy translation, Tom, but Karinthy’s syntax is difficult to translate.

      Like

  5. March 20, 2015 at 12:36 am

    My great contribution to your review and to the comments discussion will be: haven’t read it, will do, thanks for pointing that one out to me again!

    Like

    • March 20, 2015 at 11:35 am

      You’re welcome. I’m looking forward to your review.

      Like

  6. March 21, 2015 at 6:55 pm

    Great review as always Emma.

    Your commentary concerning Karinthy’s change after the Great War was such a common story with thinking people of the era. the few folks thought that the war was the last gasp of butchery, were, as you allude to finally disheartened after the events of the 1940s.

    Like

    • March 21, 2015 at 10:04 pm

      I’ve heard somewhere that we European, think of WWI as the first “industrial” war when it was actually the US Civil War. What’s you opinion about that?

      It’s hard for me to imagine what it must have been like for common folk to discover the horror of concentration camps in 1945.

      I want to read more by Karinthy Father and I’m curious about his son too. When I was reading, I was thinking “I would have liked to meet him”. The man who appears through these stories seems like someone I would have enjoyed knowing.

      Like

  7. March 22, 2015 at 4:15 pm

    Since I like very short short stories, I’m sure I’d love this. Sounds like a huge cosmos.

    Like

    • March 22, 2015 at 9:08 pm

      You’ll probably like it. It’s so funny and spot on.

      Like

  8. leroyhunter
    March 24, 2015 at 10:08 pm

    Hurray for this category!

    Like

    • March 25, 2015 at 10:35 pm

      It belongs to you. You coined its name.

      Like

  9. April 23, 2015 at 11:08 am

    It sounds marvellous, a translation tragedy indeed. Grave and Gay is available OOP, but pricey. I’d rather start with some short stories though than Voyage Round My Skull which sounds a tad daunting.

    The story about the father and the homework rings very true.

    Like

    • April 24, 2015 at 8:58 pm

      I know, it’s a tragedy. I hope a publisher decides to publish his stories in English.
      There’s also a great one where the writer sees a young man in the distance and when he approaches he sees his younger self. And this younger self starts questionning him about his choices and asking why he abandoned his dreams. Very powerful.

      I think I’ll read Journey Around My Skull, someday. He’s got such a great sense of humour and like Kostalanyi, he sounds so human.

      Like

  1. April 19, 2015 at 10:47 am
  2. December 29, 2015 at 11:29 pm

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